At a time such as this, you want the guys who can still thread a line when their hands are wet and cold. They’re descending on Houston in their fleets of flat-bottomed aluminum boats, the sport fishermen and duck hunters outnumbering the government rescuers by the hundreds, their skiffs sitting low in the floodwaters with their human catch in the back, clutching plastic-wrapped possessions.
The country is suddenly grateful for this “Cajun Navy,” for their know-how, for the fact that they can read a submerged log in the water, and haul their boats over tree stumps and levees and launch them from freeway junctions. There are no regulators to check their fishing licenses or whether they have a fire extinguisher and life preservers on board, which they don’t. They’re used to maneuvering through the cypress of Caddo Lake or the hydrilla and coontail of the Atchafalaya, where the water might be four feet or it might rise to 18, and the stinking bog is called “coffee grinds” because of the way boots sink in it. Spending hours in monsoon rains doesn’t bother them, because they know ducks don’t just show up on a plate, and they’ve learned what most of us haven’t, that dry comfort is not the only thing worth seeking.
“They can handle their boats better than the average fireman, who handles a boat once a year during annual training,” says Lt. General (ret.) Russel Honore, who estimates outdoorsmen saved 10,000 from floodwaters in New Orleans while he was in command there after Hurricane Katrina. “They use their boats all the time and know their waters, and know their capacity. It’s an old professional pride. It’s like good food: Some people didn’t go to the Cordon Bleu, but they can cook like hell. That’s these fishermen and their boats.”
They speak an oddly poetic language, of spinnerbait and jigs, chatterbait and Texas rigs, of palomar knots and turls. They have suspended their pursuit of bass and black crappies, blue gills and redfish, crawfish and panfish, to motor through subdivisions, shirtless in the rain. You can’t help but be struck by just how much they know how to do — and how much your citified self doesn’t. Trim a rocking boat, tie a secure knot, navigate the corduroying displaced water, and interpret the faint dull colors in the mist-heavy clouds.
Buster Stoker, 21, is a heavy equipment operator for R&R Construction in Sulphur, La., and spends the rest of his time in his 17-foot aluminum Pro Drive marsh boat, fishing for alligator-gar in the heat of summer and chasing fowl through water-thickets in the winter.
“The best day on the water is every day on the water,” he said.
He and several other construction colleagues met in the company parking lot Monday morning at 5 a.m., loaded up with gas and supplies, and headed toward Houston. They launched their little fleet of 14 craft from the intersection of Highway 90 and 526, and over the next several hours they pulled hundreds of people out of their flooded homes in subdivisions, hauling them aboard like gasping bass.
Stoker’s shallow boat could carry no more than seven people and sometimes he took on water, but he estimates he ferried more than 100 people over countless half-mile trips, getting them to bigger boats and buses that carried them to shelters. He’s used to steering his boat in water full of obstacles.
“There were a lot of submerged cars, and street signs,” he said by phone, sitting in his truck on a Houston highway after a long day in the flood. “And there were currents getting in and out of the neighborhoods.”
But it wasn’t much different from navigating around cypress knees and thick mat-like vegetation of the marshes. He spent Monday night on a cot with a blanket at the Celebration of Life Church. He figured he and his friends would stay in Houston for a couple of more days but were worried about the weather moving into the Lake Charles, La., area.
“We might have to turn around and do it again back home,” he said.
This Cajun Navy is a nebulous, informal thing. It has no real corps or officers. It’s “an intensely informal and unorganized operation,” says Academy Award-winning filmmaker Allan Durand, a Lafayette, La., native., who did a documentary on the “Cajun Navy” volunteer-boats following Katrina.
Local author-editors Trent Angers and Jefferson Hennessy have come closest to pinpointing the origin of the movement: It seems to have begun in the Lafayette-Abbeville area during Katrina, when a local state legislator named Nick Gautreaux organized a group of sportsmen to go to the aid of imperiled friends in St. Bernard Parish. Meanwhile, R&R Construction organized a similar flotilla out of the Lake Charles area. In both places, about 75 percent of the residents are avid fishermen who own some sort of craft. During the impromptu rescue effort, someone wrote “Cajun Navy” on a large white ice chest.
The same groups have by now acquired deep experience in storm-aid and are growing thanks to social media. They were critical in helping Baton Rouge residents during historic flooding there a year ago, when federal help wasn’t forthcoming. It’s a movement basically founded on the realization that large government agencies aren’t quick-moving.
According to Honore, they have become utterly essential.
“The first-responders aren’t big enough to do this,” he said. “You might have a police force of 3,000, and maybe 200 know how to handle a boat.”
So thank God they’re coming, in their skiffs and Gator Trax and Wigeons and Mudbugs and Riverhawks. They are unafraid of Houston’s vast floodwaters — the Atchafalaya Spillway is 150 miles long. They don’t care if they’re wet, “or how hot you are, or how bad you smell,” Durand said. “These are people who spend 300 or 400 hours in the swamp every year, and being in a subdivision in Houston is not real scary to them. It’s just water.”
They have always existed, according to Honore, forming their boatmen ranks anew in every storm. They were there for the great Mississippi Flood of 1927. They were there again for the Great New England Flood of 1936. They were there for Katrina, and they are there in Houston.
“The Cajun Navy is just a branding mechanism for volunteers that come to help their fellow citizens,” Honore says. “In every single one of these storms, most of the people saved were saved by neighbors saving neighbors. You see them in sports boats and even kayaks saving lives — and it’s a beautiful thing to see.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.